1 9 5 2 – Current (USA)
Today debuted on 14 January 1952 and was the first of its genre on American television. The brainchild of Sylvester “Pat” Weaver, Today was created as a show that few people would watch from beginning to end. Instead, it was designed so viewers could eat breakfast and get ready for school or work without devoting all of their time and attention to the television.
Originally hosted by Dave Garroway – assisted by Jack Lescoulie handling sports and light features and Jim Fleming (replaced by Frank Blair in 1953) reading the news – Today was broadcast from its own studio on the ground floor of the RCA Exhibition Hall on West 49th Street in New York.
A large plate-glass window enabled passersby to see the show and to be seen as the cameras periodically panned it, and Teletype machines, telephones, and a row of clocks showing the time in selected cities throughout the world dominated the set.
The show was received coolly by the critics at first (it suffered, initially, from an overdose of gadgetry) but settled down to become one of the most commercially successful programs in the history of the medium.
A potpourri of news (with a news summary given every half hour), deliberately short interviews, time-and-weather checks, guest performances, and conversation, the show beat back all competitive efforts to curb its dominance of the early-morning hours.
In 1953, the network decided to introduce animal co-host J Fred Muggs, a cheeky chimpanzee in a nappy (diaper), who played around on set and probably annoyed the (human) hosts immensely. When American children heard that they could see a live chimp on this new-fangled television, they persuaded their parents to buy sets, so sales and ratings went up.
Muggs lasted until 1957 and was then replaced by another chimp, called Kokomo Jr, who stayed until 1959. Muggs’s owners filed a $500,000 lawsuit against NBC for “defamation of character”, but the ape ended up as a twice-daily attraction on display at Busch Gardens in Tampa, Florida, by the mid-1970s, and in the 1980s TV Guide named its yearly recounting of dubious achievements in Muggs’s honour.
Some controversy affected the show during the 1950s. The worst came in 1959 when show contributor Charles Van Doren admitted having received answers ahead of time for questions asked of him on the game show Twenty-One. His success on that show had led to his job at Today. “What do you want me to say?” a teary-eyed Dave Garroway told his audience following the revelation and Van Doren’s immediate dismissal. “I can only say I’m heartsick.”
Two years later, Garroway gave another emotional statement to his audience about his own departure from the show following the death of his second wife in April 1961. Reporter John Chancellor assumed hosting chores, and newsreader Frank Blair was boosted to sidekick, with Edwin Newman becoming the latest newsman.
That combination never clicked with viewers, so NBC tried another team in 1962 – Chancellor and Newman were out, Blair went back to doing news, and – most importantly – Hugh Downs became host. This pairing worked much better.
When Downs took over as host, a new “repertory company” of regular contributors appeared, including Cleveland Amory as social critic, Aline Saarinen as art critic, Richard Watts as theatre critic (he did the same for The New York Post), Martin Agronsky as the lead interviewer in Washington DC, and Ogden Nash as poet laureate.
The Muppets also made several appearances in the early years. The final major addition under Downs was that of Joe Garagiola as a sidekick, taking over when producers decided not to renew Jack Lescoulie’s contract after 13 years of work on the show.
The one weak element remaining in the Downs era was “the Today Girl,” a post created in the mid-1950s in an effort to inject a feminine touch into the male-dominated show.
The first Today Girl was Estelle Parsons, and among the other women who appeared were Lee Ann Meriwether (Miss America 1955), singer Helen O’Connell (1956-1958), game show panellist Betsy Palmer (1958-1959), actress Florence Henderson (1959-1960), former Miss Rheingold Robbin Bain (1960), journalist Beryl Pfizer (1960-1961), and actress Anita Colby (1961).
The Today Girl’s chores – like reading the weather and other minor announcements – were often demeaning. When actress Maureen O’Sullivan left after six months in 1964, calling her job “asinine” and saying, “it’s not enough to sit there and smile every day with nothing to do . . . The show is simply no place for a woman,” producer Al Morgan felt compelled to drop the title and promote a woman who had been doing three reports a week for the show.
Her name was Barbara Walters, and her intelligent reporting pieces moved her up to co-anchor status by 1965.
In 1971 Downs left, and veteran newsman Frank McGee (who had little regard for Walters and limited her role somewhat) joined the show until his untimely death in April 1974.
Later that year, Jim Hartz, the late-night news anchor on WNBC New York City, got the hosting job over other candidates Tom Brokaw and Garrick Utley because, unlike them, he had no qualms about doing commercials.
Things went relatively smoothly until Walters left the show in 1976 for the nighttime anchor spot on ABC. Her replacement was a 25-year-old reporter from Chicago named Jane Pauley, and with Pauley’s arrival came a replacement for Jim Hartz as well, his former competition: Washington DC reporter Tom Brokaw.
Floyd Kalber, Pauley’s former news co-anchor in Chicago, became the new newsreader in June 1977. That move demoted Lew Wood, who had replaced Frank Blair after the latter retired following 22 years on the show, to the weatherman, and Wood left within a year.
Wood was replaced first by Bob Ryan and then by the man who held the post the longest, Willard Scott. Scott, a 250-pound, toupee-wearing jokester who started his tradition of wishing people a happy 100th birthday when a man wrote to the show in 1981 and asked him to do so for his uncle.
His antics continued into 1996, by which time he was alternating duties with former weekend weatherman Al Roker. Meanwhile, when Kalber left in 1979, Tony Guida replaced him briefly until the decision was made to have Brokaw and Pauley read the news.
An important new contributor emerged in 1980. Bryant Gumbel began doing sports segments three days a week on Today starting on 8 September 1980, and a year later did his first stint as a substitute host. A few months later, he became co-anchor with Pauley when Brokaw left to do The NBC Nightly News.
It was a tough decade for the show, as Good Morning America overtook it in the ratings. Still, apart from having Chris Wallace and then John Palmer handle the news, the team of Gumbel, Pauley, and Willard remained steady until things really unravelled in 1989.
In February 1989, many newspapers reported on Bryant Gumbel’s infamous memo criticising virtually all of his on-air colleagues except Pauley (he characterised Willard as “corny” – saying, “This guy is killing us and no one’s even trying to rein him in” – and health expert Dr Art Ulene as “boring,” for example). Gumbel apologised on air, but the damage had already been done.
Later that year, Deborah Norville, a newsreader on NBC News at Sunrise, moved onto the show to replace John Palmer, who swapped to get Norville’s old job temporarily. Then, on 5 September 1989, Norville joined Bryant and Pauley on the couch on Today‘s opening, and rumours began flying concerning the not-very-convincing on-air friendship between Norville and Pauley.
To many, it appeared that the ultimate goal of the show’s producers was to move the younger, blonde Norville into Pauley’s spot.
The manoeuvring was so obvious that even NBC’s own Saturday Night Live spoofed it in a parody titled All About Deborah.
Jane Pauley showed how classy she was by announcing on air her decision to step down “voluntarily,” as she put it, and Norville had taken over by the start of 1990. Ratings fell, and rehiring Joe Garagiola to do sports, and another blonde, Faith Daniels, to do news did not help.
Then in April 1991 – with Norville on maternity leave – NBC announced that Washington DC-based reporter Katie Couric, who had been reporting for the show for at least a year in addition to occasionally substituting for Katie, had officially replaced Norville as hostess. She clicked, and by 1996 Today was topping Good Morning America in the ratings.
That same year, Bryant Gumbel announced he planned to leave the show by 1997, giving rise to speculation that current news anchor Matt Lauer would take over his post.
On 5 April 2006, Katie Couric announced (on her 15th anniversary as co-host of Today) that she was leaving the show and NBC News to become the new anchor and managing editor of the CBS Evening News. Couric’s final broadcast on 31 May 2006 was dedicated to her decade-and-a-half as one of the show’s co-hosts.
Meredith Vieira, from ABC’s The View, began co-hosting with Matt Lauer on 13 September 2006. She stayed until June 2011, when her spot was filled by Today‘s longtime news anchor Ann Curry. Within a year, she had been replaced by Savannah Guthrie.
On 29 November 2017, NBC terminated Lauer following allegations of “inappropriate sexual behaviour”. Hoda Kotb became the interim co-anchor, and in January 2018, her interim status became permanent, making her and Guthrie the first all-female anchor duo in Today‘s history.
Dave Garroway (1952 – 1961)
John Chancellor (1961 – 1962)
Hugh Downs (1962 – 1971)
Barbara Walters (1961 – 1976)
Frank McGee (1971– 1974)
Jim Hartz (1974 – 1976)
Tom Brokaw (1976 – 1981)
Jane Pauley (1976 – 1989)
Bryant Gumbel (1982 – 1997)
Deborah Norville (1990 – 1991)
Katie Couric (1991 – 2006)
Meredith Vieira (2006 – 2011)
Ann Curry (2011 – 2012)
Matt Lauer (1997 – 2017)
Savannah Guthrie (2012 – Current)
Hoda Kotb (2017 – Current)
Merrill Mueller (1953)
Frank Blair (1953 – 1975)
Lew Wood (1975 – 1976)
Floyd Kalber (1976 – 1979)
Tony Guida (1979)
Tom Brokaw/Jane Pauley (1979 – 1981)
Chris Wallace/Jane Pauley (1982)
John Palmer (1982 – 1989)
Deborah Norville (1989)
Faith Daniels (1990 – 1992)
Margaret Larson (1992 – 1994)
Matt Lauer (1994 – 1997)
Ann Curry (1997 – 2011)
Natalie Morales (2011 – 2021)